‘Corporate’. Such an intimidating word. Conjures up silk ties and secretaries, along with the strange dichotomy of big budgets and brainwashing: the freedom to travel and speculate in a luxury straightjacket. It also suggests a complex world of opportunity for pro audio, because the jacket and tie are loosening. Beyond the obvious demands of business communication and conference, a new creativity has been allowed onto the premises, shown to the waiting area and offered a latte with cinnamon.
When PZ Cussons (pictured) – home of Imperial Leather and other cleansing confections – decided to establish an international HQ near Manchester, it was time for a few classic corporate statements. As well as the architecture, which is a symphony of rectangles in glass and steel, the AV infrastructure speaks volumes about corporate identity – quite literally. Preston-based Pure AV obtained a brief to set new standards in visitor experience, and wired the whole place to integrate the public face of the company with the private communication networks necessary to make the whole business tick.
So there is an imposing video wall in the foyer, for example, that uses innovative MicroTiles to counter the daylight that pours into the atrium. As well as the comprehensive, inter-departmental AV and data network, several more open meeting spaces have projectors and LED lighting to convey gently the self-promoting and reassuring messages of company integrity as you pass through. There’s video conferencing, of course, plus iPod docks, DVD players and portable AV systems, and a ready-to-go auditorium kitted out with wireless microphones and induction loop reinforcement. The fitness centre – naturally – and restaurant have their own BGM and TV sources. One way or another, this whole space is blowing the bubbles of PZ Cussons.
For Erica Whittle (pictured), Pure AV’s marketing manager, the PZ Cussons project represents a pinnacle of integrated corporate AV, of the kind that is tightly customised to one particular organisation. Another significant project for Pure AV was Twickenham rugby stadium, where versatility is the order of the day. “The conferencing, entertainment and meeting facility there is booked by a huge variety of outside organisations,” Whittle says, “and it has to cover everything from small trade shows to weddings. That’s the difficult thing with corporate AV: it starts to cross over into the hospitality space. At Twickenham, for example, we didn’t put in a lot of display end points. The core of it was much more about the infrastructure, and how to carry high-definition video and audio around all of the rooms and spaces in order to make them as flexible as possible. One day they might be hosting a traditional conference, with a main presenter and a seated audience, and the next day everything will be cleared out to host an awards dinner.”
Sometimes the prophecy of corporate AV is self-fulfilling. “Some companies that we kit out use the facilities to provide training for the people who sell their products, or perhaps for their customers, and then offer the same facilities to their suppliers or someone else in the supply channel,” adds Whittle. “Having good AV available means they can add value to their investment.”
QUID PRO QUOTE
Specialist AV companies like Pure tend to focus on the permanent installation of technology as part of the fabric of a building, especially a new one. But in pro audio, the emergence of a new corporate spirit of adventure, one that takes the messaging out of the car park and on the road to marketing Mandalay, is drawing established names towards brave new horizons.
According to Allen & Heath’s Ian Thomas (pictured), the corporate sector is by far the most appealing market from a business perspective. “According to BVEP (Business Visits and Events Partnership), in the UK alone the events market was estimated to be worth £42.3 billion in 2015 and to grow to £48.2 billion by 2020,” he reports, and that, proportionally, the corporate markets make up 80 per cent of events with festivals, cultural, music and sporting events making up the remaining 20 per cent. And by ‘corporate’, he means conferencing, meetings, exhibitions and trade shows.
“The corporate markets will have a growth rate of 35 per cent to 2020,” he continues, “with the market worth an estimated £36.5 billion. Conversely, the remaining markets have moderate growth of 3.9 per cent, making the market worth an estimated £8 billion by 2020.
From these figures it’s clear to see the commercial potential that this market offers and we aim to deliver not only products but platforms that are multi-functional.”
The age of the digital console has revolutionised the corporate market in terms of event production. No longer are there constraints imposed on engineers by having to cater for what seems like two separate events: internal scene management is seamless and can also be triggered by external software cues via standard TCP/IP commands. Using Automatic Microphone Mixing (AMM), the engineer is also free to focus on the ‘show’ elements of the event, saving both time and money expended by the company.
Automatic microphone mixers enable engineers to manage multiple live mics without riding individual input faders, especially in unscripted programmes. Originally the brainchild of engineer Dan Dugan (pictured), early incarnations included Yamaha’s Dugan-MY16 mini-YGDAI card for the company’s digital consoles but more generic solutions are now available – usually either the ‘gating’ type or the ‘gain sharing’ type.
“One shuts the channel if there’s no signal, simply enough,” explains Andy Huffer, founder of reseller and consultancy HD Pro Audio (pictured), “and the other works out an average gain for all the inputs. People use them in the corporate environment because, otherwise, the operator is constantly trying to second-guess who’s going to chip in next. You’re less likely to miss the start of a sentence. It’s also used in broadcast studios, of course.”
“Corporate AV is an increasingly popular market for DiGiCo,” says VP of sales Ian Staddon, “where the tech requirements and professionalism of product launches, presentations and AGMs are increasing all the time. Our clients include many of the major production companies who handle events such as the largest US consumer product launches and the recent high-profile US Presidential Debates, as well as some of the ‘blue chip’ companies themselves that have invested in equipment for their own facilities.
“DiGiCo consoles are popular for many reasons… audio quality, ease of use, flexibility, reliability and the fact that so many freelancers are familiar with the DiGiCo range. The S21 and the new S31 were developed and designed with one eye on the corporate market, in offering a compact, lightweight console that is affordable but maintains many of the key features found on the SD-Series range.”
Many leading rental companies are finding lucrative work in sub-contracting from conventional AV suppliers. The story goes that the go-to AV guys cannot scale up the audio, when the occasion demands it, in the way that they can the video and lighting. So a call goes out to an established rock and roll hire company with the tacit brief to take care of the audio as a separate package.
The establishment of SSE Group’s London operation was a clear response to the increasing demand for high-quality audio at the kinds of corporate events that only a place like London will sustain all year round (like the Fashion house Superdry event pictured). Even in Redditch, where SSE is headquartered, a dedicated corporate AV desk has been ably manned by Tom Pickett for some time now.
“We do a lot of work with Matrix Nine, run by Andrew Frengley with his huge portfolio of clients,” explains Pickett. “It’s an unusual hybrid of dry and wet hire: the freelancers are our regulars, but employed directly by Andrew. The times we get involved is when live music is incorporated into something that, say, PSP [Presentation Service Providers] or MCLcreate is doing: we’ll get a brief about the location, design a system and get down there. Otherwise, with dry hire, we’ll provide something like a control package, a passive split if they’ve got a band in with their own engineers, or a mic package, monitor package, in-ear package… specialist kit that those guys won’t have on the shelves. They know the bread-and-butter work we do, so when it comes to live music they know where to call.”
Sam Lynam (pictured) is business development manager at B+H Sound – among many other things, regular AV supplier to The East Of England Showground. “This market is a lot more strict than rock’n’roll. Loud music is one thing, but when you’re creating the ability for people to be able to hear every single word clearly…
“More and more people are adding panel sessions in which every individual is radio-mic’d, and every channel has to be pristine. I personally find it a lot more stressful! The end product has got to be perfect. Once a live band has passed through the system, in a way it’s all done. In the corporate market, feedback from a microphone is a cardinal sin.
“There’s a lack of acoustic understanding, of course, and a lot of the time you’re pushing the technology right to its limits. The client expects perfection, regardless of the conditions. Even with dry hire, we have to leave diagrams and instructions like ‘if you stand here you will get feedback’…”
There is another consideration. “We don’t allow the crew to wear shorts for these jobs,” Lynam reveals, “and their whole demeanour has to be different. Shorts send out the wrong message, and I don’t want to lose clients because B+H has a reputation for showing hairy butt-crack…”
WHEN MONEY TALKS
“In conferencing and meeting spaces, speech intelligibility is the main focus for any sound reinforcement system,” explains A&H’s Ian Thomas. “AMM is the perfect tool for these applications, with the deployment being a seamless and transparent experience for the end user. The advantages of AMM are evident in its description: the experience should be ‘automatic’, meaning no requirement for external factors to ensure smooth operation – no manual fader adjustments, no feedback and minimal extraneous noise. It’s a must-have feature for any engineer working within the corporate environment and very reassuring when customers report that, once enabled, they have the confidence to leave the system and simply walk away.”
“We handle corporate AV across two distinct vertical markets,” says Marc Henshall of Shure Distribution UK. “We have our Systems Group and we have our Pro Audio Group. The Systems Group concentrates on integrated audio solutions for a number of sectors, including ‘corporate’, while the Pro Audio Group manages the events side of corporate audio. It depends on whether the customer specialises more as an integrator or as an organizer of live events. It makes more sense for us if the Pro Audio Group is handling a corporate project if it involves a live event, or a series of live events.
“By far the biggest portion of the business for corporate AV in the Pro Audio Group is equipment for rental and production companies that specialise in this area. It has its unique challenges, because a lot of the information broadcast at these types of events is sensitive – discussions and presentations on a business-to-business level, or an internal level, of topics that are more often than not embargoed. So things like wireless encryption become mission-critical: if you’re announcing a new product to your entire organisation at a conference, you don’t want that information potentially leaking out to somewhere else.
“The events often take place in huge venues with multiple rooms, so that raises its own challenges. Channel count for the wireless systems can rack up very quickly, in comparison to a live concert that takes place in one room, essentially. They’ll also host these events in places that are already very spectrum-congested, like inner cities – we did one recently across multiple rooms in Barcelona – so we need to make sure our products continue to stand up to that kind of treatment.
“In this situation, things like High Density Mode start to really come into their own: we can intentionally restrict the operating range of each wireless system so they can be better zoned into separate rooms and you can have that high channel count across lots of systems in close proximity. It’s one of the key features of ULX-D, making it particularly attractive for that kind of application.”
“The corporations are increasingly employing in-house AV specialists,” admits Huffer (pictured), “which has taken some of the consulting side of the business away from the manufacturers and resellers. But there is a much higher level of audio technology going onto modern corporate environments, and it’s always been a pioneering area for digital audio networking, for example – going right back to CobraNet. It was a big user of EtherSound for a while, and now there’s loads of Dante everywhere.”
But progress is not unhindered. Even according to sources within ALC NetworX, the home of network protocol RAVENNA, “the lack of integration with the corporate IT network is holding back adoption of audio networking”. Despite widespread adoption of Cat-5/6 or fibre connections for digital audio, it’s commonly installed separately to all other IT systems thereby adding to the costs. It’s for this reason that RAVENNA is promoted in AV as a proven broadcast solution, more compatible with other network traffic, but it certainly is not the only option. For many others, handing audio over to the IT staff is itself risky.
“Some clients offer you a realistic indication of budget requirements,” rues Andy Huffer, “while others tell you what they want to achieve, ask you what they need, and then ‘value engineer’ what you propose into oblivion! They often imagine it will just involve a couple of Control 1s and a small hi-fi amp, and then you visit their nightmare space of marble and glass… You have to try and explain as best you can that the audio won’t cut it. While they’re happy to spend a fortune on a huge screen, because that’s where all the glamour is, they only want spend 50p on making themselves heard while they’re standing in front of it.”